Shelley Bridgeman
Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman: Why are there so many men behind bars?

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

It is well documented that Maori are overrepresented in prison populations but another significantly overrepresented demographic is seldom commented on. According to 2011 figures at, men still make up a staggering 94 per cent of the prison population.

Little has changed then since 2000 when I pointed out that males comprised "94 per cent of prison inmates yet are just below half the general population" in my NZ Herald article Does no one want to know why it's mostly men behind bars?

It was easy to assume that such figures pointed at male violent tendencies, lack of self control and overall criminality but a deeper, more enlightened view of the statistic emerged in 2001 when sociologist Samantha Jeffries completed her University of Canterbury thesis entitled Gender judgments: An investigation of gender differentiation in sentencing and remand in New Zealand.

Jeffries 262-page work began by discussing the claim in Otto Pollak's 1950 book The Criminality of Women "that female offenders were preferentially treated in a criminal justice system dominated by men and thus characterised by male notions of chivalry."

Decades on such notions evidently continue to result in women being treated less harshly by the criminal justice system. Jeffries wrote, "In New Zealand ... women are less likely than men to be ... sentenced to imprisonment" and "[o]nce imprisoned, NZ women receive shorter terms than men."

This was fascinating. I'd never considered the possibility that gender biases would be so deeply entrenched within our justice system.

Those who reject the "chivalry thesis" make claims that women's law-breaking tends to be less serious than that of men, hence the comparably lighter sentences. But a 1999 study using a Ministry of Justice database "[w]ith all independent variables controlled" confirmed "that men were more likely than women to be imprisoned."

It's thought that the domestic role of women as caregivers and centres of the family units is likely to help them secure lighter sentences. Other factors assisting the chivalry theory are that prison is often considered to be a harsher environment for women than it is for men and, thanks to there being fewer women's prisons, female prisoners are likely to be incarcerated further from home than male prisoners typically are.

Jeffries ends with the comment: "New Zealand society, the criminal justice system, and to some extent, feminist discussions ... present most men in terms of thinking, acting, powerful human beings, while simultaneously embracing women's powerlessness and dependency."

All of which must present something of a feminist conundrum. Should women embrace powerlessness and dependency in order to benefit from the more lenient treatment afforded by sexist attitudes within the judicial system or should we get all feisty, demand equal treatment and take our medicine like a man? It poses quite the dilemma.


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